One Book to Bring Them, Into the Sci-fi and Hook Them
February 12, 2010 7:29 PM   Subscribe

A female friend, who likes fantasy, has asked me, a guy, to recommend a single sci-fi book.

I read copious sci-fi and fantasy. I often recommend books to folks. A female friend who enjoys fantasy authors such as Steven Erikson, George R.R. Martin, Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss has asked me to recommend ONE sci-fi book to her. Here's my chance to broaden her horizons into sci-fi. What would you recommend?
posted by Sustainable Chiles to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (73 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I'd try one of Kage Baker's "The Company" series. Fantasy + time travel + cyborgs + romance.
posted by zippy at 7:35 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ender's Game. It seems to be popular among women in a way that a lot of sci-fi books fail to manage.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:40 PM on February 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

Either Shards of Honor or The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold. I say this because I am also a woman who reads fantasy (and mostly prefer it to sci-fi, except when I don't) and the Vorkosigan saga appeals to me in the same way fantasy does. It's very character driven and epic, and the setting and politics of Barrayar is very fantasy-esque for being solidly science fiction.

Also, that way she'll be hooked, because she'll want to read the rest! Which is not to say that the story in each book is incomplete, however.
posted by hought20 at 7:42 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ender's Game.
posted by fleacircus at 7:42 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

In no particular order:
The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Piven and Jerry Pournelle. Gave it to my sister to introduce her to scifi and she loved it. Space scifi plus philosophy and ethics; fairly "pure" scifi with rockets and exploration and stuff, but very thought-provoking too.
Red Mars, to start the Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson, if she can read loooong books. (George R. R. Martin is long, so maybe she's up for it.) About the colonization of Mars plus geology, politics, and ecology. (KSR has other books that are also great and slightly less monumental than the Mars Trilogy, but this series is a tour de force.)
Grass, by Sherri Tepper. Perhaps my all-time favorite sci-fi. Beautifully conceived characters, a rich world, and creepy bad things.
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. Time-travel on Earth, plus heartbreak and tragedy.
Can't wait to see what others contribute.
posted by woot at 7:45 PM on February 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, if that counts as sci-fi.
posted by Mizu at 7:46 PM on February 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

Dangit!! Grass is here and it's Sheri Tepper.
posted by woot at 7:47 PM on February 12, 2010

I'll second both recommendations of The Mote In God's Eye as well as Ender's Game.
posted by ssheth at 7:48 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ender's Game.
posted by hermitosis at 7:51 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm so happy to see Grass recommended above. I think Tepper is a great overlap for a fantasy fan because her stuff takes place in the future but is about as soft as soft sci-fi gets.

If she likes epic fantasy, which it sounds like given GRRM, then also Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (which is actually historical fiction but it's *written* like sci-fi so it could be a great intermediary) and Tad Williams' Otherland books (before which I didn't really realize that epic sci-fi could actually exist, but it does, and it takes place largely in a variety of fantastic worlds despite being sci-fi, and being near-future has a lot more reference in the real world). I think those are good starters because they don't just dump someone in spaceships and other stereotypical sci-fi trappings.

If I had to recommend only one single book given those favorite authors, it'd probably be City of Golden Shadow, which is the first book in the Otherland series, but I think she'll probably go on to read all four after she gets started.
posted by larkspur at 7:56 PM on February 12, 2010

Ender's Game.
It the only sci-fi book I like.
Including the rest of the series.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:57 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

LeGuinn also does good character-driven sci fi, and likes to create for her characters' own cultures the sort of thorough mythology and cosmology that epic fantasy fans appreciate. The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are the usual starting points.

(Or there's Rocannon's World, which is basically a heroic fantasy story that happens to have a few spaceships. But maybe that's missing the point? You want something that's unmistakeably sci-fi, yes? I'd go with Left Hand of Darkness, which is equally heroic and quest-y but clearly reads like a bit of science fiction rather than a fairy tale.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:02 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by Loto at 8:05 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Neuromancer, by William Gibson.
posted by radiosilents at 8:06 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Doomsday Book and Ender's Game are both great suggestions. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is also a favorite of mine.
posted by thebrokedown at 8:07 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Emerald Eyes by Daniel Keys Moran, the first book in the Tales of the Continuing Time, followed by The Long Run and The Last Dancer.

It's hard to find a copy, even on the internet, but well worth it. It was one of the first Sci-fi series recommended to me by my husband, and it's among my favorites.
posted by Seppaku at 8:11 PM on February 12, 2010

My wife, the math teacher said "A Wrinkle in Time"...

Myself, I agree with Ender's Game.
posted by HuronBob at 8:12 PM on February 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Stranger in a Strange Land?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:15 PM on February 12, 2010

I came in to recommend Ender's Game also.

Just tell her not to waste her time with the sequels.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:23 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding Dune.
posted by equalpants at 8:23 PM on February 12, 2010

I wouldn't count 'A Wrinkle in Time" as sci-fi. It is more of a fable, along the lines of the Narnian Chronicles. Good though.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:32 PM on February 12, 2010

Seconding Bujold in a big, big way. (She also writes fantasy: maybe your friend has enjoyed some of those?) She's fun, but she does serious sci-fi as in "thinking through the consequences of science".

Then if she likes the militaryness of Miles, move on to everything by Elizabeth Moon.
posted by ansate at 8:40 PM on February 12, 2010

Ender's Game!
posted by Xany at 8:44 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes to The Left Hand of Darkness; I love that book. It runs neck and neck with Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep when it comes to my favorites. Also by Vinge, Marooned in Realtime is excellent--shorter than A Fire, and a detective story! I would also recommend Stephenson's Diamond Age, though I actually liked Snowcrash better. I would not recommend the Baroque Cycle as a starting-out anything for anyone--it's hella long and complex and even I, a person who waded through Cryptonomicon glorying in its convolutedness could not manage to read all the way through it. May as well recommend she gouge her eye out, or whack her in the head with a bat or something . . . no. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed what I read of it, which was all but the last half of the last book; I just ran out of steam and time to read at about the same time. Actually, maybe Marooned In Realtime would be best, though either of the first two would be quite accessible for a reader new to science fiction.
posted by miss patrish at 8:45 PM on February 12, 2010

I wonder if Karl Schroeder's Virga books (you can start with the first, Sun of Suns) might not be a good jumping-off point for someone who is into fantasy, since it is decidedly sci-fi, but involves wooden pirate ships, swashbuckling, and the like. I am not a fantasy fan, but I really liked this book (and the whole series so far).
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:48 PM on February 12, 2010

Actually, you know what comes to mind? Anything by Kurt Vonnegut. It's all just so refreshing, and they are definitely easy reads. Slaughterhouse V or Player Piano might be an interesting angle to take.
posted by Mizu at 9:00 PM on February 12, 2010

Dune. Ender's Game cant hold a candle to it and really reflects an adolescent male fantasy.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:07 PM on February 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.
posted by purephase at 9:09 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hmm. Tricky.

Ender's Game is, unfortunately, burdened by the subsequent descent into madness of its author, and it's fairly antithetical to the Fantasy mindset. It's a masterwork of fiction, but not a transformative experience.

Neuromancer is, regrettably, showing its age... which is a shame, as it most definitely is a transformative experience. Snow Crash, too.

So! This brings us to Vernor Vinge... "A Fire Upon the Deep" - it's rife with the proverbial "sensawunda" that would absolutely speak to a fantasy fan, while also shamelessly entrenched in Science Fiction's most entertaining tropes. Iit's also one of the rare novels that actually bothers to be about something larger and more intimate to the human condition than the space battles and alien cultures.

Vinge's "Deepness In the Sky" is also an absolute sure-fire winner, with steam-punk and space-opera and noble heroes and vile villains and an understanding of bleeding-edge tech that still seems fresh today.

One other suggestion, going in an unexpected direction - Michael Chabon's "Yiddish Policeman's Union." Absolutely the finest example of Alternative History SF out there, treading a fine line between fantasy and science fiction and hard boiled detective thriller.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:17 PM on February 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

Julian May's Many-Colored Land, which shares with Martin's Song of Ice and Fire complexity, intrigue, and strong characterization. It mines Celtic folklore, which tends to be familiar to/popular with people who like fantasy, and it straddles the line between fantasy and sci-fi rather neatly overall.

I also agree with Grass, The Domesday Book, and Left Hand of Darkness.
posted by EvaDestruction at 9:28 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Being a Scott Lynch fan and avid reader of both fantasy and sci-fi, I would recommend Sharon Shinn's Archangel, Karl Schroeder's Sun of Suns or Alastair Reynolds' Chasm City. I'm not a huge fan of hard SF, but Sun of Suns and Chasm City have made me start reading it more often.
posted by fiercekitten at 9:29 PM on February 12, 2010

Anne McCaffrey's Ship series got me into sci-fi back when I was fantasy only. If she likes Pern especially, that might be an option.
posted by eleanna at 9:34 PM on February 12, 2010

On non-preview, Slap*Happy is spot on about Ender's Game. Also, as much as I love The Diamond Age, it starts off very slowly and fails to hook even sci-fi fans, so I think it's not a good risk if you get just one shot. I'd chance it on someone enamored of the Victorian era, but I don't think it's a great introductory text for most people.

On preview, Archangel may be a brilliant recommendation - if you friend likes it enough to get through the full series and uncover its sci-fi underpinnings. They're not apparent in the first few books.
posted by EvaDestruction at 9:39 PM on February 12, 2010

Bujold would be best, but The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge is forcing me to give it a mention. The emotional power of this book left me feeling like I had been tromped on by a mastodon.
posted by jamjam at 9:45 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow! Lot's of great responses here. Quite interesting ones as well, since I like all the fantasy authors I mentioned in my question, but almost none of my favourite sci-fi authors appeared in your suggestions. Go diversity!
posted by Sustainable Chiles at 10:06 PM on February 12, 2010

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons. (first 2 books in the series are great, forget the others)
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller
The Forever War
, by Joe Haldeman
posted by emeiji at 10:08 PM on February 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Patricia Anthony's Brother Termite
Walter Tevis' Mockingbird
posted by nicwolff at 10:12 PM on February 12, 2010

Seconding The Diamond Age; also, Melissa Scott weaves a bit of fantasy style storytelling in with sci-fi in her "Silence Leigh" trilogy; her Trouble and her Friends is more cyberpunk, but good stuff.
posted by AzraelBrown at 10:15 PM on February 12, 2010

I'd recommend something by Ursula LeGuin....Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed. Or Dawn by Octavia Butler.
posted by gnutron at 10:19 PM on February 12, 2010

My non-SF-fan brother loved both Snow Crash and Anathem.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:23 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the recommendation is probably going to hinge on a few things beyond just what kind of fantasy she reads.

For example, I loved Ender's Game growing up. I first read it when I was very young and socially isolated, so despite it being strongly male-oriented, it resonated strongly with my awkward girl self. Then I grew up and realized that somewhere along the way, the author was insane, and it sort of ruined the entire experience for me, and I wouldn't have responded as strongly to Ender's Game if I'd first encountered it as an adult, especially if I had any familiarity with Orson Scott Card as a person.

I read The Left Hand of Darkness in college, and it blew my mind. Rich, meaty, literary, even scholarly in tone--it might have interested me in high school, but it would've bored me to tears as a kid, and now I think it's utterly compelling and beautiful. It made me think more than almost any other sci-fi book I've read, but you have to like that kind of deep experience.

Archangel is pure girly, escapist fluff, which is awesome when you're in the mood for that kind of thing, and sometimes I am. If she likes romance in her fantasy, this will appeal to her, no doubt, and it'd ease her into sci-fi. If you're looking for something female-oriented, but not so fluffy, Dawn by Octavia Butler is absolutely brilliant. Dark, edgy, thoughtful, and lots of aliens!

The polar opposite of Dawn is probably Starship Troopers, which is about as macho as it gets, but it's still a strong sci-fi classic. I also think Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick is an excellent sci-fi entry point, but I think it also falls into the "deep thought" category of The Left Hand of Darkness.

Dune is a classic, and I like it a lot, but I also call Paul the "Cuisinart Hatrack", so the canonical nature of the book doesn't always carry a lot of weight. Boy...I've written a lot, mostly about books people have already mentioned, so I'll stop here.
posted by Diagonalize at 10:25 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

nthing Ender's Game. Author's "craziness" has NOTHING to do with the book.

C'mon People. Dune? For a girl who hasn't read sci-fi. You've got to be kidding me.
posted by lakerk at 10:35 PM on February 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

We're looking for a gateway drug, something that will appeal to this person and draw her deeply into wider world of SF. To be blunt, Orson Scott Card had exactly two good novels in him, Ender's Game and Speaker For the Dead, and a long litany of homophobic, xenophobic, Mormon-evangelical reactionary lunacy poisoning the well for anything else from his pen. If she decides she likes Ender's Game, she will run screaming once she investigates the author further.

The novel needs to be an ambassador for SF, and that means the author of that novel needs to be an ambassador, too.

(Phillip K. Dick also went nuts, but in a way that made him more human and humane rather than less... but his writing became a lot more challenging, too, and may not be the best choice for a Fantasy convert.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:53 PM on February 12, 2010

lakerk: she hasn't read sci-fi, but has enjoyed epic fantasy. Dune features feuding families, prophecy, ancient traditions, and what might as well be magical powers. I think it's a great choice for someone who's enjoyed authors like George R. R. Martin.

Unfortunately, the recent spin-off novels have done a great disservice to the Dune series, which means that it has some of the same problems that Ender's Game does, in terms of follow-ups.
posted by aneel at 11:58 PM on February 12, 2010

I'm also a female, mostly fantasy reader but I really liked Brightness Reef by David Brin. I just loved the world and even more so the characters. the rest of the uplight trilogy was as good in my opinion but Brightness Reef is story that stands out in memory.

by the way, I really liked Dune when I read in high school - and it does have a flavor of magic as well as science.

I think Ender's Game is incredible if you are the right age (middle school is probably perfect) but would not pick it as your one book to recommend to an adult.
posted by metahawk at 12:02 AM on February 13, 2010

The merit of Ender's Game comes not at all from its setting, it could readily be adapted to - say, a game of football nearly as effectively. What sets Card's works apart in my eye is the studious attention to character introspection and motivation. Yeah, Card as a person is a bit of a whack job, but I think it irrelevant. Part of what makes Card whacky is his - admitted - struggle with his religion which comes through in his writing as deep moral questions facing his characters; these are decidedly human concerns regardless of genre.

As others have hinted, "Speaker for the Dead" and "Xenocide" are to be avoided. My rather "girly" daughter was fascinated by Ender's Game at age 10, and thoroughly enjoyed the "Shadow" series. We are now reading Card's "The Worthing Chronicle" together and are both gobsmacked at the craftsmanship of storytelling contained there. This would not be a bad "gateway" for someone inclined toward fantasy as the storyline shifts between a medievalish society to an Earth circa 2500 or so. What makes Worthing work too is the storytelling and the moral investigation. It is one of the few novels that can make me weep. In the sense that fiction, and speculative fiction particularly, can push your mind out into bigger spaces than you previously imagined, such is "Worthing".

Frank Herbert, Heinlein, Gibson, Philip Dick or Stanislaw Lem have some good to magnificent works, but they are not easy introductions to the genre. And Vonnegut isn't a SF writer, damnit!
posted by fydfyd at 12:11 AM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another enthusiastic vote for Bujold, from a woman who likes fantasy more than sci-fi. The Vorkosigan series is outstanding, and has won all sorts of awards.

Bujold's writing - both fantasy and sci-fi - is accessible and affecting.
posted by moira at 12:42 AM on February 13, 2010

In the anti-Ender camp. It is a great book, but not what I would use to introduce someone to Sci-Fi coming from fantasy.

If she likes detective stories, let me recommend Larry Niven's Neutron Star, or the Guil The ARM stories. His Draco Tavern stories (which have recently been collected) are also very good for the fantasy minded reader.

The Mote in God's Eye is also quite good, but might be a bit too much for a new to the genre reader. Ditto any of the Dune books.

I would recommend William Gibson's Idoru, or the Neuromancer series.

I might also put forward H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy as a good book to start into Sci-Fi on, but I admit a total bias towards the book, being a massive Fuzzy-verse fan.
posted by strixus at 1:13 AM on February 13, 2010

I vote Dune. Politics, ecology, landscape, community, and several powerful female leaders.

Much better than Enders Game, though I enjoyed it.
posted by salvia at 1:42 AM on February 13, 2010

I would suggest Iain M Banks' The Player Of Games. Strongly character driven, and both the Culture and the lower tech Azadian Empire Gurgeh travels to are somewhat Fantasy-esque, despite the obvious Sci Fi trappings. While the characters get most of the focus, at its heart its the philosophical conflict between the two societies that is the most interesting part.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 1:46 AM on February 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

I can't believe no one has recommended Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun series. It reads like fantasy, but is set in a far, far future earth and thus has some science fiction elements. It's also an incredible read.
posted by JaredSeth at 6:01 AM on February 13, 2010

Ender's Game blows, DO NOT suggest that drivel. (Not because the author is daft, it's just a juvenile book dressed up for post teens.)

the Book of the New Sun is considered in the fantasy genre, it just is.

Dune is good if she likes those big rambling fantasy books like The Wheel of Time and such plus it reads much like a fantasy book.

Eon by Greg Bear is a pretty good yarn,had some wacky ideas at the time.

Ring World by Larry Niven, but aside from the Ringworld itself there's really no "there" there.
posted by Max Power at 6:17 AM on February 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

I came in to recommend Banks' The Player of Games, but Jon Mitchell beat me to it. It has fantasy elements, but shows how they would translate in a hyper-futuristic society. Plus, if she likes it, she can continue on with his other Culture novels.
posted by ga$money at 6:44 AM on February 13, 2010

Ender's Game with a "coupon" from you for a free copy of Dune to read after she finishes her first book. (BIAS ALERT)
posted by Atreides at 7:05 AM on February 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Count me as another vote for Ender's Game. There are no books that everyone will like, but Ender's Game is as close as it gets. Ignore the people who scream about the author being crazy. He isn't he's just honest about his religion.

As a fan of epic fantasy she'll almost certainly enjoy Glory Season by David Brin.
posted by thekiltedwonder at 7:30 AM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

A lot of people really, really love Bujold. I can't count myself as one of them, though, because every time I've picked up her stuff I've thought "ehh, this reads too much like fantasy." Therefore, it might be just the ticket for a fantasy fan trying to get into scifi.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:20 AM on February 13, 2010

+1 for The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell - fantastic worldbuilding, great character-driven plot, and it packs a very strong emotional punch.

I'd also suggest Engine Summer by John Crowley - it's quite fantasy-like, but turns out to be a very neat SF book. Plus she may well either like Crowley already, or if she likes this, then she may enjoy Little, Big
posted by crocomancer at 8:48 AM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Anne McCaffrey's Pern series is science fiction. So if she has read the Pern books, she has read science fiction. In fact, I don't think that McCaffrey has written any fantasy, only soft-sf that people mistake for fantasy.

Another author who writes soft-sf with motifs more common to fantasy (mind powers, court intrigue, pre-industrial societies) is Marion Zimmer Bradley -- her SF series is Darkover (she's also known for fantasy/historical novels like The Mists of Avalon set in c500 Britain). It's a massive sprawling series written over 40+ years, over which time she greatly improved as a writer so you don't want to just pick up the first few (which were very pulpy -- in fact, several were re-written later as better novels) -- stick to the 1970s forward novels. If she is interested in gender/women's issues, I would start with The Shattered Chain or Thendara House (which is the first I read -- and is a pretty awesome book about gender issues, for all that it's getting a bit dated) or Hawkmistress (for the classic girl-disguised-as-a-boy story); if she is more interested in mind powers, something like Stormqueen is a good place to start, as it's a stand-alone. The other psi-power books get into some epic stories as long and almost as complicated as George R.R. Martin stuff, which can be confusing because of the way that they were written -- she basically started writing one-off pulp novels to feed her kids, only to find these stories emerging over the years.

My recommendation is that she take a fantasy author whose style she likes -- like Bujold, for me -- and who writes in both genres and read that person's science fiction. There are some loose generic conventions to style, but an author who works in both genres is more likely to straddle those conventions or defy them (like McCaffrey who writes very soft-sf and romance novels) than fufil them.
posted by jb at 8:51 AM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm also finding the essentialization of either women and/or fantasy fans as readers in this thread a bit disturbing. Yes, perhaps women are more likely to look for novels with strong female characters -- after all, it's nice not to feel like people with ovaries should just sit in the background cheering all the time. But describing books as "girly" is a bit much.

As a 12-year old girl, I used to read the Pern books (sci-fi dragons), but also McCaffrey's Crystal Singer series (definitely sci-fi - about interstellar communication crystals). Now, you could say that what they shared was that both series had a lot about relationships and romance. But I also really liked Isaac Asimov (robots, psychohistory and galactic empires), who is famous for NOT having any romance in his SF stuff (in fact, he joked that he finally wrote some sex into The Gods themselves to show people he could write sex scenes -- and it's three-way sex between gaseous aliens. Good book. Seriously, really profound). So what kind of fan was I?

Your friend may not like nuts-and-bolts science fiction -- a lot of SF fans don't. In fact, there is a whole New Wave of science fiction from the 1960s and 70s -- of whom Le Guin and Ellison are important examples -- where they were far more concerned with using SF to explore questions about society and culture and psychology than stories coming from speculation on the physical sciences or technology.
posted by jb at 9:09 AM on February 13, 2010

Snowcrash - Neal Stephenson

Altered Carbon - Richard Morgan (since she seems to like some of the grittier fantasy)

both A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky - Vernor Vinge

Blindsight - Peter Watts (truly alien aliens . . . and hey, its got vampires)

Singularity Sky - Charles Stross

Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A. Heinlein (although Heinlein's philosophy tends to put some people off)

Starship Troopers - Robert A. Heinlein (see above)

Lord of Light - Roger Zelazny

Rendezvous With Rama - Arthur C. Clark

Hyperion - Dan Simmons

Ringworld - Larry Niven

The Forever War - Joe Haldeman

The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester

This Immortal - Roger Zelazny
posted by anansi at 10:13 AM on February 13, 2010

Ender's Game? So, the first time I read it I liked it. Every rereading drives my opinion further into the negative. At this point it's sort of useful to revisit to see just how cleverly manipulative it still is. It's a great recommendation, in a way and would well bridge Fantasy to SF if coming from certain kinds of fantasy. It's a terrible recommendation in other ways.

As much as I like Bujold, I liked her first Chalion book (fantasy) way better than any of her Vorkosigan (SF) novels.

But what does she really want? Maybe she wants a book that scratches the same itches that her favorite fantasy novels do, in which case I want to know what those itches are and what books she liked. Maybe she wants something different, something alien to her experiences so far. That's one of the things I look for when I look for science fiction. That's even trickier. It's a huge genre. One book will simply not do.

Not knowing anything else, I might recommend Ray Bradbury's short stories and Fahreinheit 451. Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End or Rendezvous with Rama could possibly be good too.

If she liked P.C. Hodgell's God Stalk I would recommend Michael Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers as companion reading. I know I appreciated both books profound sense of weird and themes of finding new families.

If she likes Terry Pratchett's Discworld, perhaps Douglas Hitchhikers' books would be good. If she's read those already, perhaps she would like the more cerebral Cyberiad of Lem.

Many books and stories are SF but have incorporated fantasy elements in them in clever ways. Vernor Vinge's True Names and A Fire Upon the Deep come to mind. The recently discussed Gaean trilogy by John Varley. The first book, Titan, can be read as a stand-alone. It's pretty awesome in all kinds of ways. Most of Varley's short stories are also great SF.

There's a whole "dying earth" subgenre of quasi-sf which takes place so far in the future with artifacts of "magical" power it might as well be fantasy. H.G. Wells The Time Machine, Clarke Ashton Smith's stories of Zothique, and William Hope Hodson's The Night Land were written before Jack Vance's gave it a name with his Dying Earth stories. Since then, M. John Harrison's Pastel City and sequels, and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun novels are prime examples continuing and expanding the tradition.

There's a whole bunch of books which straddle the genres too. Because I happen to like them a lot I'll talk about a few.

Almost everything by Roger Zelazny is SF/F mash-up. I recommend Lord of Light which features superheros duking it out on an alien planet while playing the roles of the Indian pantheon.

Jack Vance did a lot of this: The Dragon Masters, The Languages of Pao, Maske: Thaery. With few exceptions, Vance has only one plot which he reuses over and over again. But his work is full of other wild wonders. I'm fond of his Durdane trilogy which is SF, but features a wizard, an invasion of demons, an orphan who becomes king and what happens next.

I recently read Walter Jon William's Metropolitan and City on Fire which is about a young woman's rise in power while helping engineer a coup in a neighboring country. It has a kind of pseudo-science-magic which is clever. But Metropolitan's prime virtue is this increasingly tense (and hilarious) conflict between the main character's many lives: a worker bee in an immense municipal bureaucracy; a lonely wife trying to keep her home and sanity together while her husband is away; the most prosperous member in a large immigrant family which is still living in the ghetto with their own insular, if colorful, culture; an apprentice, lover and co-conspirator of a powerful wizard, trying to radically rebuild society, and redeem himself from his disastrous past. It's sequel City on Fire isn't quite as fun, but there's some very cool stuff in it.
posted by wobh at 11:04 AM on February 13, 2010

Dune is the obvious choice. It's got a leg and a half in fantasy, it's a complete book that isn't too long, and she can move on to Dune Messiah afterward, if she likes (but GO NO FURTHER).

She might want to read Book of the New Sun after that, but I wouldn't recommend it to start, because it's not "one book".

Daemon and FreedomTM by Daniel Suarez are heavily inspired by MMORPGs, and though they are undeniably technothriller science fiction, they have a bit of a fantasy patina because of it. Also, it is my solemn duty to plug them wherever and whenever I can.

But my top recommendation? Dune.
posted by adamdschneider at 12:11 PM on February 13, 2010

I'm female and a big fantasy (and sci fi) fan, with similar tastes. I think Enders Game is meh-fun story but simplistic and pretty juvenile, not like the complicated fantasy she likes.

I'd echo David Brin, Vernor Vinge or Sheri Tepper's Grass.
posted by purenitrous at 12:27 PM on February 13, 2010

I'm going to second the suggestion for Greg Bear. He occupies a great place between hard-sciency SF and character-driven writing (and a pretty unique one in my experience). Eon is a good choice. Also possibly Darwin's Radio. Both also have some pretty great female protagonists if that's a consideration, but that's an afterthought when it comes to why I'd recommend them.

I also just started reading Dune, and can see why it might be on the list of "one book" to recommend.

Neuromancer... it's pretty great, but it's also nihilistic enough that I don't know if it should be someone's first SF book.

As others have hinted, "Speaker for the Dead" and "Xenocide" are to be avoided.

I disagree strongly on this and other negative assessments of Speaker for the Dead. I think it's arguably much better than its predecessor or successors, less concerned with how smart anybody is or power games, more thoughtful about its themes. I'd recommend it as the book worth reading from the series and possibly from SF in general... except for the problem that it probably suffers a bit if you haven't read Ender's Game first.

We are now reading Card's "The Worthing Chronicle" together and are both gobsmacked at the craftsmanship of storytelling contained there.

Yep. The Worthing stuff is pretty good.

Just to go on a bit about Card... I've read a lot of his writing, SF, essays, even Mormon stuff, and have spent an awful lot of time trying to figure out why it is that a person who clear has been capable of some fantastic storytelling can often seem so crazy when it comes to commenting on the real world.

What I've come to believe is primarily based on what I've come to recognize in a lot of his non-fiction: he's doing storytelling when he's constructing his commentary on the real world as well. As we all do, to some extent, but I think whatever bug inside him that lets him as richly create and deeply inhabit the fantastic worlds he clearly can pull off tends to push aside other means of understanding and relating to the world.

I could go on a bit more... in general I think we have a social problem where someone is either great or worthless, and a hard time resolving the idea of gifted but flawed people, I think that someone soaring in fiction or art of any kind but having trouble grappling with the real world is far from uncommon, given the freedoms art grants and the difficulty of coming to grips with reality, and I speculate something may have happened to Card somewhere in the early/mid 1990s (though I don't know what) that changed him as a person and/or writer. But this is all off-topic and I know it. The takeaway: sure, be wary of the quality of much of his writing post-Speaker, and maybe think twice about recommending him as a first SF experience. But a lot of his stuff before then is pretty good, worth reading, and with good reason has been the gateway drug into SF for no small number of readers. And maybe more importantly: yeah, his stories about the world we live in might be frequently pretty bad, but they have about as much to do with how much you can enjoy his other work as one of his other bad novels might.
posted by weston at 1:00 PM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Get her started on Lois McMaster Bujold. I would say Shards of Honor to start in on the Vorkosigan series (science fiction), but if your wife likes fantasy you could get her hooked on the author first with The Curse of Chalion.
posted by madmethods at 2:41 PM on February 13, 2010

Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith. I'm not actually sure if it's fantasy or SF, and so it would be just about perfect, wouldn't it? And it's my "desert island one book only" choice too.
posted by clever sheep at 3:32 PM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Battlefield Earth
posted by jack.tinker at 8:30 PM on February 13, 2010

Seconding both

The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester, because it is rich with detail and deep with strangeness, and it doesn't taste like it came from the past, and
A Canticle for Leibowitz - Walter Miller, because if she likes fantasy, she will like the illuminating monks of this world, and delight in the discovery of who they really are,
plus offering
The [Widget], the [Wadget] and Boff - Theodore Sturgeon, if you can find it, because it is my very favourite, and because of the scrolls on the heads of violins. This DOES taste like it comes from the past, and it is a past where the future kind of looked like fun.
posted by Sallyfur at 10:08 PM on February 13, 2010

Dune Trilogy
Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy
Stephen Donaldson's Gap Series
2001, 2010, 2061, 3001, etc...
Foundation Series
posted by gonzo_ID at 11:53 PM on February 13, 2010

I've come back to nth David Brin (pretty much anything of his), The Sparrow and the Hitchhiker series. And to throw in a suggestion for Jennifer Government by Max Barry.
posted by fiercekitten at 12:01 AM on February 14, 2010

Now that you have a long list full of titles, you'll have to decide which ONE to recommend. As someone who has found that they do generally prefer fantasy to science fiction, I will add very biased reviews of a few of the books mentioned.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Miller: loved it, profound, a classic -- and no annoying tech-speak.

Ender's Game by Card: remember it being okay, but frankly don't remember it much. (Which says more about it as a novel than where it fits in the genre - maybe it matters how old you are when you read it.)

The Diamond Age by Stephenson: remember loving the first few chapters (little girl with book), but getting bored with the middle and hating the end. WAY too cyberpunk, too much time spent in strange, inexplicable computer networks. If you like cyberpunk and technology based science fiction, this would be a great book, but if the reader already is not interested in reading technology-based fiction, this will probably just bore them and turn them off science fiction. And books like Snow Crash have even more tech. I would NOT recommend Neal Stephenson to a fantasy fan, though he's a fine writer.

Dune by Herbert: Very good book - I didn't like it as much as Leibowitz, but I think that a GRR fan would prefer it. No excessive dwelling on technology/science -- the SF is a means to explore characters and power structures in a larger than life setting (much as epic fantasy does). In particular, the intrigue and complexity would please a GRR fan.

Foundation Series by Asimov: A personal favorite, but sometimes a bit Tolkienesque, in that the stories tend to deal with big structures (empires, planets, organisations) rather than indepth character interaction or emotions. If she likes Tolkien (who is very true to the original Viking and Anglo-Saxon epics in this respect), this may appeal. I actually prefer the later books, because they are more character oriented, to the former, but I also have the same issue with Tolkien. But Asimov is actually better than Tolkien at getting across character with very little dwelling on it, so it doesn't feel characterless. (and I love Asimov even when he writes stories about chemical interactions - there is just something about him).

Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein: Yes, this is a classic, even more profound than Leibowitz. Because of the philosophical issues (some homophobia, sexism - it was the 60s), the end does leave a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I actually prefer Heinlein's The Mood is a Harsh Mistress -- though it's not as profound in its contemplation of the human soul, it's got a stronger plot and a great mixture of lighter moments with life-or-death stakes. Also, lots of politics, which would again appeal to a GRR fan.

Ringworld: I have been fascinated by the concept since I first saw the paperback on my mom's shelf when I was child, I have tried to read it about 10 times. And every single time I put it down because the beginning is so boring in that typical pulp SF technobabble way. Definitely not an SF gateway drug. His Integral Trees, which also plays with a strange planetary environment (or, rather, lack thereof) is much easier to get into, especially as the social structures are of a pre-modern type which will be familiar to a fantasy reader, and I have read it at least 2-3 times. I would recommend it if she likes fantasy books that play with environment or unsual abilities (flying humans), less so if she's primarily a court-intrigue GRR type.
posted by jb at 8:57 AM on February 15, 2010

sorry -- I meant that I prefer the later Foundation books (written in the 1980s) to the earlier (written in the 1940s).
posted by jb at 8:59 AM on February 15, 2010

Ooh, yeah, some of Banks's stuff would be high on my list as well.

The Player of Games is a great book, but actually I'd suggest Against a Dark Background for an epic fantasy fan. It's a very clever tweak-and-update of the Quest For Ancient Magic plotline, and it draws some really nice parallels between the obsession with an ancient golden age you see in so much fantasy and the fear of being alone in the universe that you see in so much science fiction. Also: gripping, funny (no, really funny, not just snickering at pain the way some books of Banks's do) and full of kickass heist scenes.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:43 PM on February 15, 2010

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